Donald Trump is facing fresh questions about his links to Russia after a sensational report published Tuesday claimed that the Kremlin holds compromising personal and professional material on the president-elect. The unverified report’s contents set off a fresh row between the president-elect and the intelligence community, and kickstarted a debate on media ethics, after one site published the contents of the report despite admitting that they could not confirm its veracity.
Updated: 3:36 P.M. E.T.
Here’s what we know:
- A series of memos, written by a person claiming to be a former British intelligence official and based on information gathered from senior Russian intelligence sources, say the Kremlin has a dossier of compromising material on President-elect Donald Trump. The memos, which are unverified, were published in full by BuzzFeed but have been circulated among journalists and politicians for several months.
- The Wall Street Journal, citing unnamed sources, identified the dossier’s author as Christopher Steele, a former British intelligence agent who in 2009 co-founded London-based Orbis Business Intelligence Ltd, an intelligence firm specializing in Russian and Asian affairs.
- CNN reports that both President Barack Obama and Trump were briefed on the memos last week, as part of the intelligence agencies report into Russian hacking of the presidential election. A two-page synopsis of the memos was attached to the main report.
- Perhaps the two most damaging claims are an allegation of ongoing collusion between Trump campaign officials and Russian intelligence, facilitating the sharing of sensitive information beneficial to both sides; and an allegation that Russia has video footage of Trump watching sex workers engage in a sex act.
- The memos, dated June 20 to October 20 of last year – are based on the former intelligence agent’s “recent interactions with Russian sources,” according to an interview he conducted with Mother Jones’ David Corn in October. An official in the U.S. administration who spoke to the Guardian described the author of the memos as “consistently reliable, meticulous, and well-informed, with a reputation for having extensive Russian contacts.”
- The Guardian reports that Sen. John McCain learned of the existence of the memos and sent an emissary to speak with the source before he met with FBI Director James Comey to present the information. This meeting took place on Dec. 9.
- It’s important to stress that so far the allegations in the report remain unverified, with BuzzFeed saying: “Reporters in the U.S. and Europe have been investigating various alleged facts in the dossier but have not verified or falsified them.” Several other news outlets are also said to have been investigating the allegations, but so far no one has produced evidence to back up the claims.
- Trump’s initial response to the revelations was a typically vehement tweet: “FAKE NEWS — A TOTAL POLITICAL WITCH HUNT!” He later linked to an article on LifeZette, a site operated by conservative pundit Laura Ingraham that condemned BuzzFeed’s decision to publish the report: “Left-leaning news outlet abandons all journalistic ethics in publishing explosive dossier the report ‘fake news.’”
- Trump has since accused U.S. intelligence agencies of deliberately leaking the memo, drawing comparisons with Nazi Germany.
- On Wednesday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov also denied the allegations, calling them “total nonsense” and adding, “It is an attempt to damage our bilateral relations. It is pulp fiction.” Peskov himself was implicated in the memos, suggesting he was heavily involved in running a Russian campaign to undermine Hillary Clinton in the U.S. election.
- Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s campaign manager and now counselor, denied the allegations when she appeared on “Late Night with Seth Meyers,” saying that Trump “was not aware” of the report.
- Before delivering his final address to the nation as president, Obama responded to the reports by telling NBC that he doesn’t comment on classified information “as a matter of principle and national security.”
- Republican Congressman Brad Sherman called on the White House to provide a classified briefing to Congress about the details of the Russian hacking report and the information Russia may hold on the president elect.
- One of the allegations in the report relates to Michael Cohen, special counsel to Trump, who is alleged to have met with Kremlin officials in Prague last August to discuss “the ongoing secret liaison relationship between the New York tycoon’s campaign and the Russian leadership.” Cohen has denied the allegations, calling them “totally fake, totally inaccurate.” He followed up by saying he’s never been to Prague in his life.
- The timing of the revelations is bad for Trump. He is scheduled to give his first press conference since July on Wednesday, which — if it goes ahead — will now be dominated by the contents of this report.
- So why is the report coming out now? Here’s one suggestion from a former top intel official who works on Russia issues: “My take is that this is the IC [intelligence community] trolling Trump,” the source told the Huffington Post. “Because Trump stupidly picked a fight with the IC, they’re just releasing stuff to generate bad headlines.”
- Despite the allegations in the memos being unverified, the fact that the FBI, CIA, and NSA all felt comfortable enough to include a synopsis of the memo as part of its briefing to Trump and Obama indicate just how seriously they are taking the allegations.
- The memos have been circulating in media circles for months, with both Politico and Newsweek saying they have been trying to stand up the claims made in them but have so far failed to do so.
- The allegations come at a time when concerns have been raised over Trump’s pro-Russia stance. “So while people are being delicate about discussing wholly unproven allegations, the document is at the front of everyone’s minds as they ponder the question: Why is Trump so insistent about vindicating Russia from the hacking charges that everyone else seems to accept?” Benjamin Wittes, Susan Hennessey, and Quinta Jurecic wrote in a post on the Lawfare blog.
- On a day of unverified allegations, it’s worth mentioning that the denizens of notorious online message board 4Chan are taking credit for the most salacious of claims made in the memos: